Old Crimes Solved With New Technology

S A C R A M E N T O, Calif., May 10, 2003 -- Donna Hooker was 21 when she was raped and strangled in 1978, her body dumped in a field near her home in Sacramento. Twenty-five years have passed, but to her family, it feels like yesterday.

"You just go through all these years of not knowing, and that's frustrating, said her father Gene Hooker. "And it don't get any easier."

No suspect was arrested and the case went cold. Officially speaking, anyway.

Randy Hooker, Donna's brother, was also upset. "This was my sister. This wasn't a case. This was a living human being, an individual, who had every right to live."

Now this "cold" case is hot again. Donna Hooker's murder is one of 1,500 unsolved cases being screened by Sacramento County, using new DNA technology.

"In this day and age, people can change their name, their Social Security number. They can change the color of their eyes and other physical descriptors but they can't change their DNA," said Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully."

Federal Requirement

All 50 states and the federal government now require certain groups of offenders to submit DNA samples. As of January, more than 1.2 million profiles were stored in in the national DNA index system, which can be checked against crime scene evidence. And the government still wants to catalog up to 1 million more criminals.

When the Hooker case came up for review, old crime scene evidence was run through the new DNA database. Authorities said they got a match — Norman Whitehorn, who has been in and out of prison for the past 50 years.

Investigating further, detectives learned that in 1978, when Donna Hooker was killed, Whitehorn lived near the murder scene and had served time for an earlier rape and murder.

"He's a career violent offender. He's not just a career criminal. He's a murderer and he's a rapist," said Scully.

California now has a DNA database of more than 200,000 people, the largest of any state. And it's beginning to pay off. Cold cases are being solved at the rate of one a day, authorities said.

That day of reckoning finally came for Donna Hooker's case in March, as investigators headed to the state prison where Whitehorn has been serving a life sentence on weapons charges.

Whitehorn was taken to Sacramento to face trial and prosecutors will ask for the death penalty.

Randy Hooker would like to come face-to-face with the man who police now say killed his sister.

"That was the last face my sister saw on this Earth. If they enforce the death penalty and I live long enough, I'd like to be the last one he sees," Randy Hooker said.

The odds are on his side. DNA evidence puts the likelihood of anyone else murdering Donna Hooker at one in 5 billion, analysts said.